Online education plays a powerful role in modern learning. It is no longer an occasional supplement to in-person coursework; the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that more than half of students were taking at least some of their classes via digital platforms as of 2022.

Although fueled in part by the pandemic, this trend has to do with the widespread desire for flexibility and the recent technological improvements that have allowed colleges and universities to satisfy this need.

Recent changes relate not only to how many students complete coursework online but also how they convey what they've learned. Previously, our primary conception of the higher education credential has revolved around the degree: a qualification confirming the successful completion of an extended course of study. However, it's becoming more evident that degrees are not the only viable form of online learning.

These days, many students express a desire for skill-focused programs that take just a few weeks or months to complete. These programs typically do not grant degrees, but they are valued nonetheless, as they equip students with the specific skills employers demand.

Upon completion of these skills-focused programs, students are often granted digital credentials. Digital credentials are as versatile and varied as their degree-oriented counterparts, and now, they are beginning to receive the respect and recognition they deserve.

Centered on highly specific topics or skills, these programs produce distinct validation of learning that, while not equivalent to a conventional degree, is increasingly recognized by employers as a confirmation of an employee’s or job candidates' competence and commitment to their fields.

Interested in seeking digital credentials but not sure where to start? Keep reading to learn how online certificates and other forms of digital credentials can drive professional growth—and to take the next step toward pursuing a credential-driven online education.

Understanding Digital Credentials

Digital credentials are an exciting new frontier in online learning. These targeted programs can vary greatly based on the field, niche, and types of skill sought, but they share a few main features: their duration is relatively short, and most importantly, they are available fully online.

Digital credentials are a key component of modern education and professional development, representing a person's achievements and skills in digital form. It's important to note, however, that the terminology to describe short-term credentials, including digital credentials, is constantly evolving as new technologies and methodologies emerge. This means that while we can try to define digital credentials today, this definition will expand or shift as the field progresses. Below, we outline some of the common terms currently used to describe digital credentials.


Microcredentials refer to a modern and flexible approach to education and professional development, focusing on the acquisition of in-demand competencies in a concise format. Unlike the term digital credentials, the essence of microcredentials lies in their specificity and brevity, not necessarily their digital format.

As an umbrella term, microcredentials encompass a wide range of specialized credentials, including certificates and badges, each designed to signify mastery in a particular skill or competency. Microcredentials provide targeted learning experiences that are shorter in duration than traditional degrees programs, ranging from from a matter of weeks to up to a year or more.

The key characteristics of microcredentials include:

  • Specificity: Each microcredential is designed around a specific skill or competency, ensuring learners can focus on precisely what they need to learn or improve.
  • Brevity: The programs are intentionally short, making them accessible for continuous professional development without the long-term commitment required by more traditional educational pathways.
  • Recognition: Upon completion, microcredentials offer formal recognition of the skill or competency acquired, often in the form of digital badges or certificates, validating the individual's expertise in a concise and specific area.

Microcredentials are particularly valuable in today's fast-paced and ever-evolving professional landscape, where the demand for specific skills can arise quickly and change frequently. They provide an effective means for individuals to stay competitive and for organizations to ensure their workforce is skilled in the latest practices and technologies.

By focusing on precise competencies, microcredentials facilitate lifelong learning and career development, enabling individuals to adapt to new challenges and opportunities as they arise. Whether seeking to upskill in a current role, pivot to a new career path, or simply expand one's knowledge base, microcredentials offer a practical and recognized way to achieve these goals.

These various forms of credentials can be combined to provide a well-rounded grasp of employee skill sets. In some situations, stackable credentials are available, allowing students to both gain skills and knowledge via certificate programs as well as apply completed certificates toward degrees.

Digital Certificates

Digital certificates stand out as one of the most prevalent forms of digital credentials today, embodying a wide spectrum of achievements across academic, professional, and personal development realms. These credentials vary significantly in scope and purpose, catering to a broad audience with different objectives.

Some digital certificates represent the completion of coursework that awards academic credit, aligning closely with traditional educational systems. Others may not confer academic credit but can also be valuable, offering recognition for the completion of professional development programs or personal growth initiatives. The flexibility of certificate programs means they can range from comprehensive multi-course sequences to fewer courses focused studies on a specific topic, all designed to be completed in a shorter timeframe than conventional degrees, typically less than one year.

Upon completion, these certificates signify competency in the subject area, affirming the recipient's commitment to expanding their knowledge and skills. The subjects covered by certificate programs are diverse, reflecting the wide array of interests and needs in the modern professional and academic landscapes. Examples include:

  • Agile Project Management: Certificates in this area equip professionals with the methodologies and practices essential for managing projects in fast-paced and flexible environments.
  • Election Administration: This specialization provides the knowledge and skills necessary for effectively overseeing election processes, ensuring integrity and efficiency.
  • Health Management: Focused on the administrative and leadership aspects of health services, certificates in health management prepare individuals for roles that require managing healthcare facilities or programs.

Digital certificates thus offer a dynamic and accessible way for individuals to achieve and demonstrate expertise in a particular field or subject, supporting career advancement, academic growth, and personal enrichment. Whether seeking to gain new skills, transition to a new career, or deepen expertise in a current field, digital certificates provide a valuable and recognized means of showcasing one's accomplishments and dedication to lifelong learning.


Badges serve as a dynamic visual representation of a professional's achievements, competencies, or skills. While certificates ( digital or otherwise) are authoritative documents that may signify a professional's eligibility for licensure or certification in a field, badges offer a more versatile and relatable way to showcase a range of accomplishments.

Unlike academic certificates, which often represent the completion of a formal education or training program, badges can symbolize the acquisition of specific competencies or skills, achievements, or the completion of various educational milestones. These can include:

  • Completion of a Single Course: A badge may be awarded for completing an individual course, signifying the learner's dedication and mastery of the course material.
  • Group of Courses: Badges can also represent the successful completion of a series of courses, indicating a broader understanding and skill set in a particular area.
  • Demonstration of Competency or Skill: Beyond course completion, badges are particularly effective in signifying the demonstration of specific competencies or skills, whether acquired through formal education, work experience, or self-directed learning.
  • Signify an Achievement: Badges can be awarded for achievements that go beyond academic or professional milestones, including participation in community services, leadership roles, or other extracurricular activities.

In essence, badges provide a flexible and comprehensive means of demonstrating a wide array of professional and personal achievements. Their visual format makes it easy for individuals to share and showcase their unique skill sets and accomplishments across digital platforms, offering a more nuanced and detailed picture of their capabilities.

Digital Credentials and Career Advancement

Digital credentials provide valuable opportunities for professionals to expedite their move up the career ladder. Many credential programs are leadership-oriented, so this can be an excellent strategy for gaining administrative or management skills without needing to commit to time-intensive graduate programs. Other programs emphasize in-demand technical skills that otherwise might create obstacles to advancement.

Higher education has long been linked to career advancement, but digital credentials provide the opportunity to accomplish this while offering more flexibility and a reduced time commitment. Many aspiring students view this as the ultimate win-win: develop skills, maintain work-life balance, and demonstrate readiness to climb the career ladder.

Accessibility and Inclusivity of Digital Credentials

For many students, digital credentials are desirable because they are more accessible and inclusive than other approaches to higher learning. This accessibility stems, in part, from the lack of geographic boundaries. As with other forms of online learning, students can take advantage of compelling coursework from any location, so long as they have the right devices and a strong internet connection.

With digital credentials, accessibility and inclusivity extend beyond geographic parameters. Due to their virtual format and brief duration, these programs tend to be more affordable than other types of higher education and therefore may present fewer financial constraints.

Furthermore, while the application and admission process for some digital credentials can be rigorous, most have streamlined processes which are more accessible to a wider range of students, who may only need to submit applications and proof of high school diplomas before gaining admission.

H2: Networking and Professional Visibility

Strategic networking is a must across fields, and often, aspiring professionals look to college coursework as the best opportunity for connecting with like-minded individuals. Its true that degree programs can be networking powerhouses, but digital credential programs have many of these same opportunities.

Despite their digital format, e-learning programs often emphasize in-depth discussions and other forms of collaboration, encouraging students to work with and learn from one another. Once completed, these programs produce badges and other verification of skill development, which can make job candidates' resumes and online presence more compelling to employers.

Lifelong Learning and Continuous Skill Development

Digital credentials provide a powerful catalyst for lifelong learning, along with a practical vehicle to ensure professionals from all walks of life can continue to boost their skill sets long after they've graduated.

Students are never too old or too experienced to gain new skills or knowledge, and, with accessible credential programs, they face fewer barriers along the way.

Digital courses and certificates can be selected according to personal interests or passions, and, while the desire to appeal to employers will naturally play into this, many students also seek credentials exclusively for enrichment purposes.

The Future of Hiring: Digital Credentials as a New Norm

Digital credentials have already had a huge impact on recruitment and hiring, but this revolution is just beginning. Moving forward, degrees will remain important, but employers will increasingly emphasize skill-specific credentials. These can supplement degrees and provide a competitive edge when looking for the most in-demand career opportunities.

The power of credentialing is already evident, based on results from recent surveys of employers. Research from Collegis Education and UPCEA indicates that an overwhelming 95% of employers see value in credentialing programs, with 76 expressing that microcredentials convey employees' dedication to skill development. Additionally, more than half believe this is a viable solution for conveying employee competency.

As digital credentialing becomes more common, a greater share of employers may express confidence in certificates and other digital credentials and the job candidates who acquire them. Digital accreditation platforms and other standardized solutions may bring greater trust and oversight to this credential-based environment,

Challenges and Considerations

Digital credentials provide a world of opportunity for students from all walks of life, but they also present a few distinct challenges worth addressing. Key considerations include:

  • Knowing which credentials to pursue – Learning is always worthwhile, but strategic selection is necessary if the main goal is to acquire critical workforce skills. This means taking a close look at potential coursework to determine whether specific programs will emphasize the targeted skills or knowledge needed to advance.
  • Choosing between certificates and degrees – There is no one right way to pursue an online education. While some students are better suited to shorter-term credentials or certificates, others may benefit more from conventional degree programs. Much depends on educational background and employer expectations. As mentioned, however, this either/or decision may no longer be necessary in the future, as stackable options are becoming more common.
  • Financial aid – Many degree-seeking students enjoy access to a number of scholarships, grants, and other financial aid options. These may be available for some online certificates, but others may offer limited financial aid opportunities. This may be balanced out by the often lower cost of attendance, but finances should be carefully considered when determining which approach to take.

Learn More About Digital Credentials and Online Education Today

Are you seeking new solutions for fueling professional growth? Digital credentials and online education opportunities abound to help you enhance your resume while gaining the simple satisfaction of learning something new.

The University of Minnesota provides a variety of valuable skill development opportunities, including many highly regarded, fully digital certificate programs. Reach out today to learn more.